Monday, June 19, 2017

Blade (1998, USA)

(Spoilers.) Back in the 1970s, when the comic companies realized that it might be a good idea to create a few Afro-American heroes, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colon (1 Sept 1926 – 23 June 2011) created the supporting character of Blade, the Vampire Killer, for the then-popular Marvel comic book The Tomb of Dracula. (His debut was in issue #10, July 1973, a year and a month after the first Afro-American superhero to have his own comic book, Luke Cage, debuted in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire).
The Tomb of Dracula, ostentatiously a comic about the great Count doing evil in the world of today, was actually almost as much about the numerous people out to make the Count a shish kebab as it was about him and his nefarious activities. Blade was the first of the comic's characters that fit more into the mold of "superhero" in that he was more than just a Joe Schmoe human. (Possibly thinking that it would be a good move to go even more into the superhero direction, Colan & Wolfman later introduced a real superhero, the Count's very own son, Janus, and the comic folded soon thereafter – or at least, we stopped buying it back then; maybe it lasted longer. We were never really a fan of Gene Colan's art,* and the Count's son broke the series for us.)

*About the only artist we liked less than Colan was Afredo  Alcala, and even as a we child we knew that Kamandi was doomed to being cancelled when he was given the art chores for publication.

Blade's powers and motivation lay in his origin, which director Stephen Norrington & scriptwriter David S. Goyer present in the pre-credit sequence of his movie: Blade's mother is bitten just prior to his birth, he survives due to caesarian section. (Wonder who his wet nurse was.) As a half-human and half-vampire, he is forever driven by a thirst for... Revenge (and forever fighting his "bloodlust," of course). His main power was that he could throw a mean wooden knife and had to walk at night. For the movie, needless, to say, his powers (and bloodlust) have been amped considerably. Despite, or pehaps thanks to, such changes, in terms of comic book movie adaptations, Norrington & Goyer's Blade is up there amongst the best ones made prior to Marvel hitting stride with its contemporary Marvel Universe series. When released, Blade was a noticeably successful updating, if not improvement, of the original character, not least because the filmmakers, not bound by the castrating ball and chain of the Comic Code, wisely went for an R-rating. The movie was also, arguably, the first Marvel film that really didn't look cheap shit.

Dumping the gothic overtone of most vampire flicks, Norrington and scriptwriter David S. Goyer cobbled together a fun, gutsy hormone-driven revenge flick that is equal parts Terminator (1984 / trailer) — or any other film in which the main character keeps coming and coming and coming — and monster film, heavy on computer-generated effects (only slightly more successful but much, much more excessive than those found in Anaconda [1997 / trailer]). Far more an action movie than horror flick, the filmmakers also updated Blade's costume, dumping his old, brown coat and green combat jeans in favor of modern, black, bullet-proof S&M gear, and give him almost superhuman powers (in the comics, as mentioned, he basically threw well-aimed wooden daggers). Respectful to the tradition of Blaxploitation, the movie also owes equal debt to Hong Kong martial arts & bullet ballets. True, none of the fight ballets in Blade ever reach the excessive grace of such films as Peking Opera Blues (1986 / trailer), Black Mask (1996 / trailer), The Killer (1989 / trailer), or any number of other unrelated, top-notch Hong Kong fodder, but they do reveal a better understanding of the genre than most other US-made homages up to that point in time.

Goyer, who also scripted the excellent science fiction film noir Dark City (1996 / trailer), updates the entire concept of vampires, making them less seductive and gothic, converting them into morally corrupt pleasure seekers, super violent egoists that are less erotic than carnal. (OK, this doesn't sound new in this post-True Blood [2008-14] world, but it was sort of new once upon a time.) As in the unbearable turkey Vampirella (1996 / trailer), vampires are everywhere, the older generation as much bloodsuckers as international businessmen, Republicans, World Trade Organization members and, one could image, members of Trump's White House team. (In their society, there is a definite prejudice between the ancients, who were born vampires, and the new generation, who were bitten and converted. The former seem to prefer their food in clean bags of donated blood, the latter gushing fresh from a neck.)

Unlike Vampirella, in which the bad guy is out to create eternal darkness, in Blade the bad guy is out to release the forces of the vampire god La Magra and convert the entire human population into vampires — rather an idiotic idea, if one considers that that would mean the end of the vampire's food source. As it is, the sheer number of vampires in Blade would require such a large food supply that it would be impossible for them and their actions to remain unnoticed — unless, of course, one goes for the conspiracy theory that they control the real power of the world (as Blade briefly insinuates at one point when he says that the police "belong" to them). In any event, since Blade is neither a message film nor badly made, such minor narrative flaws are easy to overlook if one stays for the whole ride.

After the opening credits, the ride begins with Racquel (Nora Louise Kuzma, better known as Traci Lords, she of legendary floppies that once bounced with Harry Reems, among many) leading some innocent dude out to party hardy to a booming techno club located in the backrooms of a slaughter house. His good times go bad when the sprinkler system begins spurting blood and all the dancers around him reveal themselves as vampires, but Blade arrives and slaughters everyone and thus inadvertently saves the guy's party. Great scene.

The burnt remains of the vampire Quinn (Donal Logue of Silent Night [2012 / trailer] and The Grave [1996 / trailer]) get taken to a hospital, where he regenerates and bites Dr. Karen Jensen (N'Bushe Wright of Dead Presidents [1995 / trailer] and Civil Brand [2002 / trailer]) before Blade shows up again. Quinn escapes when the police appear spitting bullets, while Blade splits with Karen in tow. Back at his base, we meet Blade's mentor Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson of For Sale By Owner [1982 / trailer], Payback [1999 / trailer] and The Sailor Who Fell From the Grace with the Sea [1976 / trailer]), a graying, long-haired vampire hunter and all-purpose handyman. The vampire situation of the world is revealed to Karen and from there on Blade is basically one enjoyably excessive series of violence and blood, complete with exploding heads, staked vamps disintegrating everywhere, and deep-fried Jaba the Hut vampire librarians. Karen tags along the way as the strong-willed, female sidekick who is as brave as her balls are big. Whistler dies (at least until the sequel), as do many others, but in the end all's well that ends well and all the bad guys get hacked and staked or sprayed to death (exploding every time).

Strangely enough, though, even during the huge explosion during the big finale, blood always seems to fly everywhere but onto Blade himself. The last scene of Blade in Russia is disappointing, far inferior to the more jokey "alternative ending" not used but to be seen as an outtake on the DVD.

The casting and acting in Blade are top notch all along the way. Snipes is well cast as Blade, and though not as charismatic as he was in New Jack City (1991 / trailer) he does show as much muscle as he did during his hilarious turn as a bad guy in the enjoyable and under-appreciated Demolition Man (1993 / trailer) and tosses his one liners just as smoothly. N'Bushe Wright is excellent as Karen, one fine-looking hot momma, unbeatable and brave in the best Pam Grier tradition, even if she does keep her clothes on all the time (though she does seem to mysteriously lose her bra halfway through the film). Stephan Dorff (of Botched [2007 / trailer] and Alone in the Dark [2005 / trailer]) plays bad guy Frost as if he were one dangerous, spoiled, and perpetually pissed-off youngster, much the same character he usually plays, only a little more psychotic and blood thirsty. (Actually, every "young" vampire in Blade is played as a dangerous, spoiled, perpetually pissed-off, psychotic, and blood-thirsty youngster — could this be a subtext here?) Kris Kristofferson doesn't look at all as if he went on the wagon in 1976 or like he ever had a facelift, but his age and the wear and tear of his face serve his characterization of Whistler well. Udo Kier, the big-business leader of the vamps, is as prissy as normal but explodes convincingly, while the entire 5 minutes she is on screen Nora Louise Kuzma doesn't flop about her notable areolas but does exude the carnal bitchiness she has patented ever since Cry-Baby (1995 / trailer).
All in all, Blade is a fun film that doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't, and delivers everything it promises and even a tad more. About the only thing the film lacks are bare breasts, but then it never promised to have any. And does well without them.

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